Old reds

The winery at Chamonix has a new restaurant, run by a French couple who used to have Mon Plaisir at the bottom of the Hartenberg Road. The new place is also called Mon Plaisir, and all pleasures are heightened by their list of French wines which augments the small list of Chamonix wines. In recent years, the Chamonix wines have really improved, led by their Pinot noir and Chardonnay reserve wines.
On a boeuf Bourguignon day a pinot was calling and the winery list featured the 2007 Chamonix Reserve Pinot Noir at R160. The French wine list featured a “village” Burgundy at R220. (Broadly, “village” is a term that refers to the basic level of Burgundy quality, before you get the “crus” where the individual vineyard is specified). Not that French wine is always better (though French pinot is usually truer to itself than our oaky versions), it is always interesting to taste, so we asked for the “village”.

The bottle that arrived was vintage 2001. Faced with the choice of drinking a fresh 2007 vintage red or a 2001, I will always choose the older. A red wine needs a few years to settle. Tannins knit, polymers join up, acids integrate. Some secondary flavours, called “bottle age,” often develop which add to the complexity of the drink. Besides all that, here in the Cape we so often drink only the young stuff that it is a treat to get older wine to drink.

Wasn’t always like this of course. When cellar maturation was the norm, reds were designed to age – they were pretty tough to drink before a few years had elapsed. Today, the approach to wine-making and style of wine has swung 180 degrees. Reds are built to drink now. Both for rapid commercial turn-over and because the perception is that the market does not like tannin, it likes easy-drinking.
Hence, nowadays, many of our red wines do not age (in the sense of continuing to improve) for much over five years. These wines are less tannic, softer and more approachable in youth, and the corollary is that they do not mature and improve for long. In the old style of wine-making (still practised in many parts of Europe), a red wine is hard and unapproachable in its youth, tannic and leathery. After five years it’s beginning to be drinkable, but it’s only soft and smooth after 10.

“Modern” wines are “pre-integrated” through riper fruit and soft handling and age is often not a prerequisite to further pleasure. The flip is that they will not go the same distance. In many ways, the red that really needs a decade to reach optimal drinking is now a relic of another era. This column salutes the 1975 Zonnebloem Shiraz. A month ago, still a wine to enjoy.

2 Replies to “Old reds”

  1. “Reds are built to drink now. Both for rapid commercial turn-over and because the perception is that the market does not like tannin, it likes easy-drinking.”

    I disagree, I think that there is not a “perception” that the market does not like tannin, it is “truer than not” that the market does not like tannin. I’m not trying to argue semantics nor whether it’s good or not, I just think that if unapproachable wines were what people wanted to drink, then that is what would be available.

  2. Valid point, however I think there is room for wines that contain levels of tannin higher than many commercial examples. They would not be unapproachable, but would be more approachable as time goes by. The loss of tannin is not only a loss of approachability but also structure and freshness.

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